Boosting local vaccine manufacturing capacity

Africa produces less than 1% of its annual vaccine requirements, which leaves the continent vulnerable, as witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic when its governments struggled to source critical vaccines to save lives.

The pandemic laid bare the urgent need for the continent to accelerate investments in building vaccine development and manufacturing capabilities to ensure the achievement of the bold target of manufacturing 60% of the vaccines we consume in Africa.

Local vaccine manufacturing capacity strengthens national health security and reduces dependency on foreign suppliers for timely access to critical vaccines, which underscores the importance of a company like Biovac.

Biovac is a biopharmaceutical company based in Cape Town that was founded in partnership with the South African government in 2003 to establish local vaccine manufacturing capability for the provision of vaccines for national health management and security.

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has representatives on the Biovac board and works with key stakeholders advocating for support in building vaccine development and manufacturing capacity at Biovac.

The DSI also works closely with Biovac to build linkages with potential funders as well as product development and technology transfer partners to ensure Biovac's long-term viability.

"It would be impossible for Biovac to achieve its mission and goals without support from the DSI and other partners as the timelines are long, the undertaking is complex, and it requires huge capital investments.  It's not a mission that one can take on one's own," explains Biovac's Head of Science and Innovation, Dr Ebrahim Mohamed.

Through critical investment in local infrastructure building and vaccine development and manufacturing skills, the company has secured high-profile technology transfers from international pharmaceutical companies for the manufacturing of paediatric vaccines.

These partnerships have enabled Biovac to be a frontrunner in establishing the South African vaccine industry through the transfer of sophisticated technology and the building of scarce aseptic manufacturing skills.

Explains Mohamed, "Beyond manufacturing capability, Biovac has also built globally recognised capabilities in vaccine product development, a unique capability in Africa.  We are currently working on the development of an oral cholera vaccine to address a growing need in South Africa and on the continent.

Another key innovation has been the development of a group B streptococcus (GBS) vaccine that targets a maternal immunisation strategy whereby a pregnant woman is vaccinated and transfers natural protection to her baby before birth.  We are also working in a consortium together with Afrigen, the Medicines Patent Pool and the World Health Organization (WHO) to establish mRNA vaccine capacity and capability for lower middle-income settings around the world."

Mohamed's role is multifactorial, but at its core is developing a team with know-how and skills to address the complex technologies of tomorrow.  "A huge component of this is the development of the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API), which, quite often in the context of Africa, needs to be imported through partnerships with multinational corporations.  The ability to produce the API locally is one of the key aspects to the role, as well as expanding the ability to produce vaccines off different technology platforms (for example, bacterial or viral platforms).  To do this, we have developed the ability at Biovac to develop certain drug substance candidates in-house.  To date we have worked on a variety of different targets such as HiB (a type of influenza), pneumonia, TB, HIV and, of late, GBS and cholera vaccine targets."

When asked how ready the continent is to deal with the next pandemic, Mohamed is cautiously optimistic:  "While we are certainly more prepared to deal with the next infectious disease emergency than we were three years ago, we still have a distance to go.  Encouragingly, we have more than 20 initiatives across Africa to build vaccine manufacturing capacity, but these need to be expedited to be better prepared sooner.

"Underpinning the need to be ready in pandemic situations is the ability to build a sustainable organisation that can supply the demand of local WHO Expanded Program on Immunization vaccines.

"However, we need to increase investments across the science and innovation value chain with longer time horizons and incentivise product development and technology transfer partnerships while also identifying strategic national vaccine product development and/or manufacturing projects and facilitate access to funding for these," he adds.

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